Did you ever feel like a fish out of water?
Let me tell you a quick story…at the beginning of the semester, I went over with the med students to the gross anatomy lab…it’s where the med students work on human cadavers. It was my first time there and it wasn’t the dead bodies that bothered me—it was the live ones! All those smart medical students…and I felt like the dumbest person in the room. I mean, if you checked my undergraduate transcript you’d see that there’s no way I should be anywhere near a medical school laboratory. That small voice inside me kept saying—you have no business being here. I know you wrote a book on ministering to young people but don’t even think that matters here. These are medical students. I was completely overwhelmed.
Haven’t you felt overwhelmed? Maybe you’re about to take a test and you studied hard but the questions aren’t the ones you studied for? Maybe you think that you’re a great cook but you burn the dinner and the guests are arriving. Maybe you thought you were a star athlete and you get murdered by the other team. Good looking, but the object of your affection rejects you.
All of these kinds of things can do a great number on our ego, can’t they? It’s demoralizing when we are in a place where don’t think much of ourselves and we think nobody else does either.
Would it be that we were more like a Pharisee in the Gospel today? Confident. What a strong ego on that guy. “Thank you God, that I am not like the rest of humanity!” Boy, he thinks he’s hot stuff.
And he is–the Pharisees are upstanding citizens–sitting in a place of honor in the temple.
By the same token…we can feel like a fish out of water when we also believe that we’re God’s gift to the world—the other extreme. How dare that teacher give me a B–I only get all A’s. How dare that coach start that Freshman over me…I’m a Senior. I don’t belong here with this riff-raff. I’m better than that. Why should I have to empty the dishwasher? I’m a noted author.
Yeah, my wife would never let me get away with that.
It reminds me of the line in the hysterical movie Anchorman: I’m kind of a big deal….people know me.
That’s the Pharisee.
The message of today’s gospel isn’t one that pits the Pharisee against the tax collector but rather it’s a message that tells us that we need God just as much when we think too much of ourselves as we do when we don’t think enough of ourselves. And we’re all going to have those moments in our lives.
And in the gospel, the tax collector realizes that but the Pharisee doesn’t.
Aren’t there times in your life when your ego gets too large or too small? I nearly got whiplash that day in the anatomy lab because I went in arrogant enough to think I had everything to offer those students and then left lost and hopeless when I didn’t have a clue.
Big ego, small ego, maybe even no ego—whatever would describe your personality—they all lead us to God. They all remind us that we can’t do any of this alone. That we need God to comfort us when we are afflicted, but also to afflict us when we are comfortable. God doesn’t just sit back and only work on us when we’re at the the bottom of the barrel. No, God doesn’t play favorites, as the book of Sirach tells us today in the first reading, He works on us just as much when we are at the top of our game.
So the spiritual opportunity for us to remember is to keep looking for God in all things, in all matters, at all times. That none of us are perfectly made. We all get a bit too high and we all get a bit too low. Even those smart med students, who I thought had it made…they remind me that need our prayers and maybe even a bit of help de-stressing when they have a big test.
And not only is the message an internal message for us to check ourselves but it’s also an opportunity for us to check in with each other. Is there someone who could use a little ego boost today? “I saw your facebook picture and you looked so good in that dress.” “I know you’ve been down since you failed that test. Come over to my house for dinner.” Maybe even the other way, “Um, you know, that really hurt my feelings…who do you think you are, anyway?” And the one that I need to hear most often—“Hey, you’ve been talking awhile, you think I could get a word in edgewise? I might have something important to say too.”
And so before someone actually says that to me…
Now I would bet the mortgage that we all have either a big ego or one that’s too small at least once a week. Maybe that’s why we come here?
Maybe we come before our God like that tax collector who went home justified–as Jesus says–because just being here is a sign to ourselves and the world that we know that God can make something out of these messy, unbalanced egos that we all have–some too high..others too low. And each time we gather around this altar we might come as we are—arrogant or discouraged—but when we leave –we leave with a bit of God mingled into ourselves. And may that Body of Christ balance us to have egos strong enough to profess our faith but humble enough to bring peace to ourselves and to all those that we meet in the world.